Yes, We Have a PhD Glut…

…if you’re not a tenure-track PhD (and that will be most of you. Sorry). I’ll have more to say about ScienceBlogling DrugMonkey’s training post tomorrow, but one of the disturbing things in the comments of his post was the high numbers of people who viewed PhD training only in light of producting more tenure-track faculty. Since that’s something I’ve blogged about before, I was going to respond, but then science got in the way (stupid SCIENTISMZ!). Fortunately, two excellent pieces showed up discussing this topic (my timing is exquisite). Over at Scientific American, Beryl Lieff Benderly asks if we produce too much scientists. Benderly (italics mine):

But many less publicized Americans, including prominent labor economists, disagree. “There is no scientist shortage,” says Harvard University economist Richard Freeman, a leading expert on the academic labor force. The great lack in the American scientific labor market, he and other observers argue, is not top-flight technical talent but attractive career opportunities for the approximately 30,000 scientists and engineers–about 18,000 of them American citizens–who earn PhDs in the U.S. each year.

“People should have a reasonable expectation of being able to practice their science if they’re encouraged to become scientists,” says labor economist Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation “It shouldn’t be a guarantee, but they ought to have a reasonable prospect.” But today, however, few young PhDs can get started on the career for which their graduate education purportedly trained them, namely, as faculty members in academic research institutions. Instead, scores of thousands of them spend the years after they earn their doctorates toiling in low-paying, dead-end postdoctoral “training” appointments (called postdocs) in the laboratories of professors, where they ostensibly hone skills they would need to start labs of their own when they become professors. In fact, however, only about 25 percent of those earning American science PhDs will ever land a faculty job that enables them to apply for the competitive grants that support academic research. And even fewer–15 percent by some estimates–will get a post at the kind of research university where the nation’s significant scientific work takes place.

As long as we train PhDs to do other things than be tenure-track faculty, there isn’t that much of a problem, but, given the way research is currently structured, there’s little economic incentive for that to change from within the academy (italics mine):

Despite a longstanding dismal job market in academic science, however, departments continue to recruit graduate students and postdocs because they need skilled and inexpensive labor to do the work promised in professors’ grant proposals. Doctoral-level researchers must receive the “trainee” wages paid to postdocs–generally about $40,000 a year for 60 to 80 hours a week with no job security or promotion opportunities. But paying postdocs a true professional wage would mean many fewer highly skilled hands, fewer publications and less chance of winning a grant renewal
This dynamic creates distorted incentives, an artificial sense of shortage and a vicious circle. From the standpoint of a department chairman, Teitelbaum says, “you’ve got this research funding [that] will finance 15 graduate research assistants and 10 postdocs and your department and your faculty are committed to doing the research because you won the grants, but there aren’t enough people applying to be graduate students and postdocs from the U.S. From your perspective, that could be deemed to be shortage.” But, he emphasizes, “the demand is inside the institution, it’s not in the labor market.” Faculty members intent on getting the research done are “not thinking about…whether there’s post-university demand for people who have gotten PhDs or done postdocs.”
….Some senior academic scientists have told Teitelbaum they are “very worried” about the fact that the supply of scientists that this country’s universities train is thus totally unrelated to the demand for researchers in the market for career positions, but they find it “difficult to be open about it because it’s very threatening to the structure by which research is done,” Teitelbaum says. ” Who’s going to actually do the bench research?” Other professors, educated decades ago, “finished their doctorates, in a very tight labor market where they could get a tenure track position or have several offered them right off the bat,” Teitelbaum continues. “So they have only positive views of their experience. And they might think that people today are just complainers or whiners and [so] just get on with it. If you’re good enough you’ll do fine. That would be a fairly typical position.”

So what are possible solutions to what is a glut (or at least, a tenure-track glut)? I’ll get to mine in a bit, but Jennifer Rohn has some ideas (italics mine):

…Phase I, all lab heads train only 3-5 students over their career lifetime – just enough to replace the current generation of lab heads, with a few extra in case of attrition. These students would be the very best that the universities produce, and competition would be fierce. A few more of the lab positions would be held for post-doctoral training of those few students. But the bulk of research staff in the labs of the world would be made up of permanent, professional scientists. These would be paid a lot more than ‘apprentices’, but you probably need far fewer of them to get the desired results. And perhaps a few more students and postdocs could be trained with money paid into a general institute kitty contributed by the other professions who now skim off science’s leavings. After all, these companies – banks, law firms, publishers, big pharma and the like – are getting the benefit of good staff without contributing to the bulk of their education and training. This way, you’d get a more efficient lab, all talented scientists would have real prospects in research and morale would be a lot higher. Perhaps more meaningfully, those who leave the bench for related jobs would not have to suffer through a superfluous number of postdoctoral years funded by siphoned-off research money that was intended for purer pursuits – you only need a PhD to do many of these jobs, not eight years of postdoctoral servitude during which pension and savings accumulations are concomitantly delayed.
What happens when the pool of permanent research staff is ten or fifteen years away from mass retirement? Here’s where we reach my dream, Phase II. Gradually you start expanding the university science places and PhD positions, letting in perhaps 2 to 3 times more than you’ll need to replace each of the permanent staff as they go offline. Eventually, with adjustments, the system should reach an equilibrium: enough PhD students to stably feed a majority pool of permanently employed, professional research scientists, each lab with a traditional lab head at its helm and a team of true apprentices.

It sounds good, although, as Rohn admits, the implementation will be tricky, to say the least. But what she’s describing is the ‘center model’ which is often disparaged. I’ve argued that the center model needs to be more common in science:

Before everyone freaks out (ZOMG!! YOU EATED ALL TEH GRANTZ!!), I’m talking about shifting funding. But one advantage of large project-oriented or center-oriented* grants is that they are educational ‘sinks’–they soak up surplus PhDs. As long as the economic incentives are for academic researchers to produce far more PhDs than are needed to replace themselves**, we will continue to have this problem. And after all, isn’t the point of training all these people to then have trained people doing stuff?

Personally, I work at a large science center, and one of my roles is to work with outside collaborators. From my perspective, I am doing far more interesting and relevant science than I would be as an independent PI. I’m also not required to do jobs (i.e., straight administrative stuff) that many PIs, at some institutions, are required to do–I can focus on the research. I never say never, but I can’t ever see myself wanting to return to academia. My pay is better, and I (usually) have some time for a life*. Unlike many advanced degree programs, where the employment options are usually broader (or there are simply more jobs available), the PhD results in an incredibly narrowly focused career path. If you want to ‘fix the shortage’, then broaden that path.
*I also think many academics suck at time management (both theirs and others).

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21 Responses to Yes, We Have a PhD Glut…

  1. JohnV says:

    Self pitying rant incoming:
    People with PhDs can get screwed over at large research centers too. In fact, it might be crueler at such places where there actually exist non-PI PhD positions as a post-doc can be told that 3+ years of indentured servitude will lead to such a job. Then have the rug pulled out from under him or her one day.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I would urge people who care about this issue to get involved with organizations like the National Postdoctoral Association, who have been working pretty hard for the last few years to help reform the postdoctoral experience for all stakeholders. (
    Some figures to think about (and the ones in the first quote are now out of date):
    Fewer than 15% of postdocs (so not counting all those grad students who got their PhDs and then went and did something else) will get a tenure track position.
    30 years ago, 25% of all R01s went to researchers under the age of 35.
    Now, less than 2% of R01s go to researchers under the age of 35.
    Each year, the average age of new faculty appointments goes up by a year.
    The NPA has been successful building relationships with NIH and NSF, but they’re only ever going to be part of the solution. More than 70% of postdocs are funded via their PI’s R01, so there’s very little leverage that the funding bodies can exert. It’s mainly up to the universities to help fix the problem, but they’re getting cheap labor that they don’t have to pay benefits to so I’m not that hopeful we’ll see meaningful reform. Couple this with senior faculty (who are tenured and ought to be supported by their institutions) who outcompete their juniors for research money instead of spending their time mentoring and passing on their skills and you can see that the structural problems inherent in the way that we train young scientists in this country are severe. But who cares when we can just import them for cheap from India and China?

  3. Sharon Astyk says:

    I think the infantilizing culture of academia – in which one isn’t a fully grownup intellectual until one is, ummm, well into middle age for most (BA, Ph.d, Post-doc, Young Faculty…) serves mostly older faculty. For example, consider the wild heresy that one should select for tenure based on graduate work – no post-doc, no long pre-tenure period. You get hired as tenured, or not. Screams of horror will rise up – how could we possibly know after 4-7 years of academic work who the best mind will be. Well, you can’t – on the other hand, the chances of the best minds wandering off to do other things, rather than be treated to a decade of bullshit are somewhat better.
    I think it is necessary to recognize that the academic training system is designed less to create great scholars than to extend the period that people are willing to put up with a lot of crap in the hope of winning the academic lottery.

  4. Mu says:

    As a PhD scientist I would jump out of the window before taking a “research staff” position in academia. There’s nothing more depressing that being stuck in a zero-advancement possible looked down upon by everyone position like a non-tenured academic. Your former peers are now tenure or tenure-track, the students consider you a failure or part of the furniture, and those that went into industry make double your salary, with at least a chance to climb their way to lab leader etc.
    And for the suggestion of training only a few postdocs to be the future tenure generation, that gives the tenured professor even more of an advantage. You take that position, you’re in for 15 years of servitude before you’re handed off to an institution of your professor’s choice. You just wrote the old boys network into stone for another 100 years.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for mentioning my blog post. After I posted it, someone alerted me to the Scientific American article – there must be a cosmic convergence of disgruntlement in the air on both sides of the Pond!

  6. Paul Orwin says:

    I think it is worth pointing out that there are other jobs in academia besides big shot PI. The articles above use a number of “fuzzy math” tricks to make things sound very bad for someone just out of school.
    “In fact, however, only about 25 percent of those earning American science PhDs will ever land a faculty job that enables them to apply for the competitive grants that support academic research. And even fewer–15 percent by some estimates–will get a post at the kind of research university where the nation’s significant scientific work takes place.”
    Leaving aside the self serving bullshit about “significant scientific work”, you could work at a SLAC, or a regional university, or a junior college, or even a science oriented high school (public charter or private) and have a great career. A significant part of this is the myopic view of young Ph.Ds that only being a big lab PI is “success” (a view shared by a lot of their mentors and peers, of course). Also, is there any reason to expect there to be a 1:1 ratio of academic positions to science Ph.Ds? I’ve known people who went on to flip houses, work at biotechs, etc by choice, not by necessity, as well as people who doggedly pursued and eventually got that big brass ring. It’s really hard to see how this is any different from any other career path (except for the long hrs and crappy pay…oh, wait, I guess that’s just America these days).

  7. Alex Small says:

    The problem may be most directly apparent in labs training Ph.D. students, but we feel some of it in the world of undergraduate education. We’re told that the measure of success for involving students in research is how many we send to grad school. Well, what if we train a student in our labs and that student acquires some technical skills and learns how to think about a project, and then that student goes to industry instead of grad school? What’s so bad about that?
    I have a post up on the subject.

  8. Tex says:

    In the US, a huge part of the problem is NSF’s idiotic insistence on giving preference to accomplishing the grant proposal’s objectives using student labor, when the same thing could be accomplished faster, better, cheaper with technicians or postdocs.
    Is NSF mandated by Congress to insist that their grantees produce more Ph.D.’s than we can ever possibly use, or are they just oblivious to reality?

  9. David says:

    Not a word in the post about people whose PhD in science gives them thinking skills that help them in useful non-science careers. Which advanced training helps society more in, say, a public policy position – a science PhD or a liberal arts PhD?
    Not a word about the pure educational value of tackling a research project, and carrying it through to completion. The liberal arts guys have it down – they talk about the character-building aspects of their degrees all the time. There’s nothing more valuable to intellectual development than getting a doctorate in science. Our nation needs more people with that training, not fewer. Even if they don’t work in academic science.
    Not a word about science careers in industry. I left a tenured academic position for industry, and haven’t looked back. I do more interesting work, I’ve had a wider variety of available opportunities, and I’ve enjoyed productive collaborations with brilliant colleagues. So what if I don’t publish as much as I used to?

  10. Jim Thomerson says:

    Maybe early 1980’s there was an article in Bioscience which looked at growth of science as a logistic growth curve. The paper concluded that science was at carrying capacity because funding would never double again. The article predicted a drastic decrease in PhD level programs and the growth of some areas of science at the expense of other areas. Certainly the latter has occurred, but not the former.

  11. Alex Small says:

    Leaving aside the self serving bullshit about “significant scientific work”, you could work at a SLAC, or a regional university, or a junior college, or even a science oriented high school (public charter or private) and have a great career.
    I agree completely, and I work at a regional university and enjoy my work immensely. (I also manage to do some research that I think is pretty significant, thank you very much.) HOWEVER, the Ph.D. glut means that even jobs at regional universities and other non-R1 schools will be hard to get, as evidenced by the number of applicants per open position at non-R1 schools.

  12. Cloud says:

    Before I start, full disclosure- I have a PhD in science. I work in industry in a job that uses that background about 50% of the time. I have never, ever regretted the decision to get a PhD, even though I could have landed on a similar career path (but not in my current job) with a master’s or even just a bachelor’s degree.
    Anyway, I think both view points are right, in their own ways.
    Yes, there are too many PhDs for the academic positions out there. That is clear to me. However, it is less clear to me that this means that there are too many PhDs, full stop. As previous comments have mentioned, there are other things to do with a science PhD, many of them very rewarding from both a financial and a personal satisfaction viewpoint. The academic system downright sucks at introducing students to those opportunities, though- or at least it did when I went through (about 10 years ago). The fiction was that if you were good enough and worked hard enough you would get an academic position, and that this is what every scientist should want in order to “succeed”. This is just not true, on many levels. So there are a lot of unhappy scientists who feel like there is a PhD glut. (Note that there are similar sentiments within the pharma industry, as downsizing has become rampant, and once secure jobs are vanishing- go over to Derek Lowe’s In the Pipeline, look for a downsizing post, and read the comments if you want to see what I mean).
    BUT…. If you think about the sorts of companies we need to have founded and grow here to keep our economy competitive, they are usually science-based. Biotech, high tech, renewable energy, are the three biggies right now. These all employ some PhD level scientists, some undergrad level scientists, and some people with no science degrees whatsoever. Company founders in industries like biotech almost always have PhDs, though. So the country needs enough scientists to found the new science-centric companies. There is no way to know ahead of time which potential scientists will have the ideas that turn into companies and the entrepreneurial spirit to try to pursue them. Really, the only way to do it is to train a bunch of scientists and see what happens.
    In my opinion, the solution is to be honest with potential PhD students. Only a small portion can go on to be academic scientists. Another portion will go on to land jobs in industry that are “traditional” research jobs. The rest will look elsewhere for their careers. Some careers will continue to use the science training- industry jobs in regulatory, QA, IT, etc; policy jobs; science writing jobs; jobs in intellectual property (and I’m sure I’m forgetting some). Other careers will not use the science training at all, but will probably benefit from the intellectual rigor the training provided. All of these careers are perfectly valid things to do after getting a PhD, and you can be a “success” in any of them.

  13. Majid says:

    “Leaving aside the self serving bullshit about “significant scientific work”, you could work at a SLAC, or a regional university, or a junior college, or even a science oriented high school (public charter or private) and have a great career”. I do agree 100% with this statement. I work also at a regional university and I am very happy about my career. Despite a heavy teaching load (12 credit hours/semester), I do research, train undergrad and grad (MS level) students, and publish 3-4 manuscripts per year! As stated above, there is a fierce competition even for jobs in these universities and colleges. However, I do agree that we need to continue training lots of PhDs and let them chose the career that best suit them. There are lots out there. David, I like your quote: “There’s nothing more valuable to intellectual development than getting a doctorate in science”. David ?? I need your last name .

  14. IP freeley says:

    Disclosure: I’m a current postdoc with slim-to-none future academic job prospects.
    Why don’t we just advocate a complete boycott of postdoctoral positions? I think we’ve established that postdocs don’t really get any significant training, and most of us are in dead-end positions. I also don’t see how we’re going to get any top-down fix to the problem, too many senior people _need_ their postdocs to get research done.
    If fresh minted PhDs simply refuse to take postdoc jobs, then grant money goes unused and universities will be forced to find new ways to get research done. It also makes sense as new PhDs in their late-20s are going to have an easier time switching fields than washed-up postdocs in their late-30s.

  15. Jacob says:

    I have about as much sympathy for science PhD candidates unable to land tenure track academic positions as I do for college basketball players who don’t make it to the NBA. You are part of a small, select bunch reaching for a dream. Nothing is owed to you. Accept that you might not reach the dream or move on.
    2 out of 10 Americans are unemployed right now. Many of them sacrificed 20 or more years to their employers toiling long hours for low pay only to have their pensions stripped.

  16. Jim Thomerson says:

    I was at a small regional university without a PhD program. Over the years we advertised various job openings, all requiring PhD, and, in later years, postdoc preferred. We got as many as 300 applicants for one job. More usual was maybe 50-100. We had several unsuccessful searches where we decided we did not want to hire any of the applicants who remained in the pool.

  17. Re: Cloud’s comment that we need to be more realistic with PhD students.
    You have a point that PhD level scientists are needed in other occupations, but doesn’t it seem wasteful that we train PhD students in a small sub-field, only to have them leave for completely unrelated work? In addition, supervisors tend to mold grad students in their image, which leads to a pretty narrow point of view.
    I guess this is just a refinement of your idea, but I think it would make more sense to start training for a profession BEFORE they start that profession. Doing research will develop the intellectual rigor required for difficult jobs, but I think in addition to that, the requirements to obtain a PhD should be broadened.
    Maybe PhD programs should introduce more funding opportunities than those available now. In addition to research and teaching fellowships, perhaps industrial funding can play a greater role? Fellowships in science policy, journalism, or science administration could be offered? Heck, there’s a shortage of science teachers in the US…why not pay grad students a stipend to teach in high schools?

  18. Cloud says:

    teachtothetest- there are fellowships available (post-PhD) in science policy and journalism.
    I’d love to see more programs try to give their students the opportunity to be interns in a company. This would only work easily for universities near clusters of appropriate companies, but I think replacing one lab rotation with an internship would be a great idea.
    And we really, really need to stop acting like not going for a tenure track job is failure. I am still (10 years post PhD) occasionally the recipient of pity for the fact that I’m not a tenure track professor. This puzzles me. I don’t want to be a tenure track professor. I like my job and my life, and feel plenty successful, thanks very much.

  19. genbio64 says:

    Sure, everyone wants to lead the academic lifestyle, sit in the cozy ivory tower writing grants and churning out data, but like the American dream, this has gone the way of the dodo for most. My PhD is not old enough to even gather dust but I knew 3 years ago that academia is a nearly dead end. One would think that the NIH with all of its collective wisdom would help figure out a solution to dissolving this problem. Instead they fund ridiculous programs like the NIH Oxford Cambridge Scholars Program. Its become yet another way to pump PhD’s into an over flooded market. Not to mention they get funding for their extensive travels, higher than average stipends, and free equipment. Obviously I understand the value of excellent training but these are the types of students who will succeed anywhere. On top of the extravagant costs they also have the option to go on to med school, fully paid for by the program. Personally, I can’t help to think how this money could be better spent funding young investigators already in the system, or perhaps some smaller grants for proof-of-principle higher risk projects, just something to help those already doing good science. Combine this with the news from the Oxford President that many bright students are now leaving these once traditional fields to chase the money found in finance and business, I can’t help but think how this is a huge loss for science overall. No doubt this is the brainchild of some older investigator who only seek even more recognition, instead they should focus their efforts on producing something that actually helps the system, not break it down even more.

  20. Donn Young says:

    I was one of the research staff PhD’s at a large research academic institution and had a truly satisfying career. While working on a BS in zoology [chemistry minor], MS in botany, and a PhD in botany/aquatic ecology, I took a number of courses in statistics with my doctoral work focusing on multivariate biostatistics. After graduating, I began working as a research associate/biostatistician at an academic cancer center designing, conducting, and analyzing cancer clinical trials. While none of my degrees were in biostatistics, I got the job because I was able to understand the mechanisms underlying the biological questions posed in the research. Since clinical research is a team effort, I always felt an integral part of the research team. I worked with many tenure-track PI’s; the vast majority of whom were glad to have my help and who were happy to include me as co-investigator on grants and co-author on publications. Those who didn’t understand the research team concept and didn’t want my help were neither funded nor received tenure. As a research scientist, I had my own NIH grant and served as a member and an ad hoc on NIH study sections. I think the study section work meant more to my colleagues than being tenure-track. At the time I retired a couple of years ago after 30 years of work, I was funded from a dozen NIH grants. My friends would get upset when I couldn’t be included on their grants because I was maxed out. So, yes, there is life outside tenure-track – and with fewer administrative responsibilities. I was lucky to work at a great institution with wonderful colleagues.

  21. ali says:

    For the person who compared Phd to NBA stars.
    I think the sad thing believe or not is that professors (needing cheap labor) never ever tell you how terrible the prospects are. Not only phds, in general STEM fields are lots of work and NBA like outcome but politicians constantly cry shortage (well markets take care of shortages by pricing, if there is no state intervention) and professors mislead naive dreamy grad students. They really do.
    When I was a post doc I wrote a short email to grad students, telling them that they should realize the job prospects for Phds in academia are not good and that industry cares more about experience than about your phd. That they should have an eye on their future career while they are in school and not wait for the last moment and avoid endless post docs.
    Result? I was fired (well I was not renewed) The chair had threatened me before in private. I told him I will not be silenced. They did not want me to tell the truth to grad students. The phd industrial complex is a place of repression not learning. Academia is on decline in the United States and soon US will loose its lead in science and technology.

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